May 2023

David Grann uncovered a real-life ‘Lord of the Flies’

Interview by
In the bestselling author’s latest narrative nonfiction masterpiece, he revives an 18th-century tale of shipwreck, mutiny, murder and “fake news.”
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In 1740, a ship called the Wager departed from England to pursue a Spanish galleon filled with treasure. However, before the crew could accomplish their mission, they wrecked on an island off the coast of Patagonia. What happened next—from the men’s harrowing survival to the unexpected fallout once they returned to England—is expertly told by National Book Award finalist and Edgar Award winner David Grann in The Wager.

Your previous books have dealt with a range of historical eras and subjects. What first sparked your curiosity about this story of a British naval expedition in the mid-18th century?
I came across an 18th-century eyewitness account of the expedition by John Byron, who had been a 16-year-old midshipman on the Wager when the voyage began. Though the account was written in archaic English, and the lettering was faded and hard to decipher, it instantly sparked my curiosity. Here was one of the most extraordinary sagas I had ever heard of: a crew battling typhoons, tidal waves and scurvy; a shipwreck on a desolate island off the Chilean coast of Patagonia, where the castaways slowly descended into a real-life Lord of the Flies, with warring factions, murders, mutiny and cannibalism.

And that was only part of the saga. Byron and several other survivors, after completing extraordinary castaway voyages, made it back to England. (By then, Byron was 22.) They were summoned to face a court-martial for their alleged misdeeds and feared they would be hanged. In the hopes of saving their own lives, they all offered their own wildly conflicting versions of what had happened, and this unleashed another kind of war: a war over the truth. There were competing narratives, planted disinformation and allegations of “fake news.” So even though the story took place in the 1740s, it struck me as a parable for our own turbulent times. And if all this wasn’t enough to spark my curiosity, John Byron became the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron, whose work was influenced by what he called “my grand-dad’s ‘Narrative.’”

Read our starred review of ‘The Wager’ by David Grann.

Your descriptions of what it was like to be on a British man-of-war or stranded on a desolate island are so specific and vivid. What kind of research enabled you to write with this level of detail and intimacy?
I was amazed that, even after more than two and half centuries had passed, there was still a trove of firsthand documents about the calamitous expedition. They included not only washed-out logbooks but also moldering correspondence, diaries and muster books. Many of these records had somehow survived tempests, cannon battles and shipwreck. I was also able to draw on court-martial transcripts, Admiralty reports, contemporaneous newspaper accounts, sea ballads and drawings made by members of the expedition. All of these sources of information, as well as the vivid sea narratives published by many of the survivors, hopefully help to bring this gripping history to life.

You personally took a journey to the site of the shipwreck that stranded the crew of the Wager off the coast of South America. How did that experience enhance the telling of this story?
After a couple of years of doing the kind of research most suited to my physical abilities—that is, combing through archives—I feared that I could never fully grasp what the castaways had experienced unless I visited the place now known as Wager Island. At Chiloé, an island off the coast of Chile, I hired a captain with a small boat to guide me to Wager Island, which is about 350 miles to the south and situated in the Gulf of Sorrows—or, as some prefer to call it, the Gulf of Pain. After several days of winding through the sheltered channels of Patagonia, we entered the open Pacific Ocean, where I had at least a glimpse of the terrifying seas that had wrecked the Wager. We were caught in a storm, engulfed by mountainous waves, and our boat was tossed about so violently that I had to hunker down on the floor; otherwise, I might have been thrown and broken a limb. Thankfully, the captain was extremely capable and led us safely to Wager Island. We anchored for the night and at dawn climbed in an inflatable boat and went ashore.

The island remains a place of wild desolation—mountainous, rain-drenched, freezing, wind-swept and utterly barren. Unlike the castaways, who had only scraps of clothing, I was bundled up in a winter coat with gloves and a wool hat. Yet I was still bone cold. Near the area where the castaways had built their encampment, we found some stalks of celery, like the kind they had eaten. But there was virtually no other nourishment. At last, I grasped why one British officer had called the island a place where “the soul of man dies in him.”

“Even though the story took place in the 1740s, it struck me as a parable for our own turbulent times.”

Book jacket image for The Wager by David Grann

Many of the scenes in The Wager have a novelistic immediacy. What are some of the techniques you used to bring those scenes to life while hewing to the facts as you discovered them?
The most important technique, I think, was simply the narrative structure. The book shifts among the competing perspectives of three people onboard the Wager: the captain, David Cheap; the gunner, John Bulkeley; and the midshipman, John Byron. Because of all the underlying research materials, I tried my best to let the reader see and feel history unfolding through their eyes.

Speaking of novels, you note that the story of the Wager influenced well-known writers such as Herman Melville and Patrick O’Brian. How did that play out?
Occasionally, a great teller of sea tales would be drawn to the saga of the Wager. In his 1850 novel White-Jacket, Melville notes that the “remarkable and most interesting narratives” of the castaways’ suffering make for fine reading on “a boisterous March night, with the casement rattling in your ear, and the chimney-stacks blowing down upon the pavement, bubbling with rain-drops.” In 1959, O’Brian published The Unknown Shore, a novel inspired by the Wager disaster, which provided a template for his subsequent masterful series set during the Napoleonic Wars. And it wasn’t only novelists who studied the reports of the expedition; so did philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, as well as the scientist Charles Darwin.

In an author’s note, you write, “I’ve tried to present all sides, leaving it to you to render the ultimate verdict—history’s judgment.” In the chapters that follow, you remain scrupulous about allowing readers to decide for themselves what happened on this ill-fated mission. What made you decide to take that approach?
I thought it was the most honest and transparent way of documenting the murky truth. Each survivor from the expedition was shading or eliding the facts, hoping to emerge as the hero of the story and avoid being hanged. Whereas one officer might only admit that he had “proceeded to extremities,” another witness would disclose, in his own account, how that officer had actually shot a seaman right in the head. By considering each competing account, readers can hopefully discern how the historical record was being manipulated, and see the past in a fresh light.

“At last, I grasped why one British officer had called the island a place where ‘the soul of man dies in him.’”

You describe great heroism and real depravity, along with a range of other character traits, exhibited by the crew of the Wager. What does this story tell us about how human beings succeed or fail in the face of extreme hardship?
The story illuminates the contradictory impulses of people under duress. When the castaways worked together, they improved their chances of survival, building an outpost on the island with shelters and irrigation systems. But many of the men eventually succumbed to their own desperate self-interest and became pitted viciously against one another, which only fueled their destruction. The unpredictable nature of humans, including the good and the bad, was what surprised me most while researching and writing this book.

Near the end of the book, you write, “Empires preserve their power with the stories that they tell, but just as critical are the stories they don’t—the dark silences they impose, the pages they tear out.” What does the story of the Wager say specifically about empires and colonialism?
The history of the Wager underscores the ravaging nature of imperialism and colonialism. British authorities seemed to recognize that the scandalous Wager affair threatened to undercut the central claim used to justify the ruthless expansion of the empire: that its civilization was somehow superior. The Wager’s officers and crew, these supposed apostles of the Enlightenment, had descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity, behaving more like brutes than gentlemen. Some of those in power thus tried to put forward their own versions of events and rewrite history. 

I think the Wager affair also shows how some people’s stories are erased from the history books. Unlike many of the survivors, one man named John Duck, who was a free Black seaman on the Wager, could never share his testimony. After enduring the shipwreck and a long castaway voyage, he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. There is no record of his fate. His story is one of the many that can never be told.

“The Wager’s officers and crew, these supposed apostles of the Enlightenment, had descended into a Hobbesian state of depravity, behaving more like brutes than gentlemen.”

Congratulations on the release of Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of your book Killers of the Flower Moon this May. There are reports that Scorsese has also optioned The Wager for a movie. Can you discuss that?
Scorsese and his team worked with such care in adapting Killers of the Flower Moon; they worked closely with members of the Osage Nation to faithfully render this important part of history. And so I’m honored that Scorsese has decided to team up again with Leonardo DiCaprio to develop the story of The Wager

What can you tell us about your next project?
Well, I am looking now for a new book subject, so please send any ideas!

Headshot of David Grann by Michael Lionstar

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The Wager

The Wager

By David Grann
ISBN 9780385534260

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